By Matt Taibbi
In 1934, at the dawn of the Stalinist Terror, the great Russian writer Isaac Babel offered a daring quip at the International Writers Conference in Moscow:
“Everything is given to us by the party and the government. Only one right is taken away: the right to write badly.”
A onetime Soviet loyalist who was eventually shot as an enemy of the state, Babel was likely trying to say something profound: that the freedom to make mistakes is itself an essential component of freedom.
As a rule, people resent being saved from themselves. And if you think depriving people of their right to make mistakes makes sense, you probably never had respect for their right to make decisions at all.
This is all relevant in the wake of the Brexit referendum, in which British citizens narrowly voted to exit the European Union.
Because the vote was viewed as having been driven by the same racist passions that are fueling the campaign of Donald Trump, a wide swath of commentators suggested that democracy erred, and the vote should perhaps be canceled, for the Britons’ own good.
Social media was filled with such calls. “Is it just me, or does #Brexit seem like a moment when the government should overrule a popular referendum?” wrote one typical commenter.
On op-ed pages, there was a lot of the same. Harvard economics professor and chess grandmaster Kenneth Rogoff wrote a piece for the Boston Globe called “Britain’s democratic failure” in which he argued:
“This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence… has been made without any appropriate checks and balances.”
Rogoff then went on to do something that’s become popular in pundit circles these days: He pointed to the lessons of antiquity. Going back thousands of years, he said, Very Smart People have warned us about the dangers of allowing the rabble to make decisions.
“Since ancient times,” he wrote, “philosophers have tried to devise systems to try to balance the strengths of majority rule against the need to ensure that informed parties get a larger say in critical decisions.”
Presumably playing the role of one of the “informed parties” in this exercise, Rogoff went on:
“By some accounts… Athens had implemented the purest historical example of democracy,” he wrote. “Ultimately, though, after some catastrophic war decisions, Athenians saw a need to give more power to independent bodies.”
This is exactly the argument that British blogging supernova Andrew Sullivan unleashed a few months ago in his 8,000-word diatribe against Donald Trump, “Democracies end when they are too democratic.”
Like Rogoff, Sullivan argued that over-democratic societies drift into passionate excesses, and need that vanguard of Very Smart People to make sure they don’t get themselves into trouble.
“Elites matter in a democracy,” Sullivan argued, because they are the “critical ingredient to save democracy from itself.”
I would argue that voters are the critical ingredient to save elites from themselves, but Sullivan sees it the other way, and has Plato on his side. Though some of his analysis seems based on a misread of ancient history (see here for an amusing exploration of the topic), he’s right about Plato, the source of a lot of these “the ancients warned us about democracy” memes. He just left out the part where Plato, at least when it came to politics, was kind of a jerk.
The great philosopher despised democracy, believing it to be a system that blurred necessary social distinctions, prompting children, slaves and even animals to forget their places. He believed it a system that leads to over-permissiveness, wherein the people “drink too deeply of the strong wine of freedom.”
Too much license, Plato wrote (and Sullivan echoed), leads to a spoiled populace that will turn to a strongman for revenge if anyone gets in the way of the party. These “men of naught” will inevitably denounce as oligarchs any wise group of rulers who try to set basic/sensible rules for society.
You have to be a snob of the first order, completely high on your own gas, to try to apply these arguments to present-day politics, imagining yourself as an analog to Plato’s philosopher-kings.
And you have to have a cast-iron head to not grasp that saying stuff like this out loud is part of what inspires populations to movements like Brexit or the Trump campaign in the first place.
Were I British, I’d probably have voted to Remain. But it’s not hard to understand being pissed off at being subject to unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. Nor is it hard to imagine the post-Brexit backlash confirming every suspicion you might have about the people who run the EU.
Imagine having pundits and professors suggest you should have your voting rights curtailed because you voted Leave. Now imagine these same people are calling voters like you “children,” and castigating you for being insufficiently appreciative of, say, the joys of submitting to a European Supreme Court that claims primacy over the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.
The overall message in every case is the same: Let us handle things.
But whatever, let’s assume that the Brexit voters, like Trump voters, are wrong, ignorant, dangerous and unjustified.
Even stipulating to that, the reaction to both Brexit and Trump reveals a problem potentially more serious than either Brexit or the Trump campaign. It’s become perilously fashionable all over the Western world to reach for non-democratic solutions whenever society drifts in a direction people don’t like. Here in America the problem is snowballing on both the right and the left.
Whether it’s Andrew Sullivan calling for Republican insiders to rig the nomination process to derail Trump’s candidacy, or Democratic Party lifers like Peter Orszag arguing that Republican intransigence in Congress means we should turn more power over to “depoliticized commissions,” the instinct to act by diktat surfaces quite a lot these days.
“Too much democracy” used to be an argument we reserved for foreign peoples who tried to do things like vote to demand control over their own oil supplies.
I first heard the term in Russia in the mid-Nineties. As a young reporter based in Moscow in the years after communism fell, I spent years listening to American advisors and their cronies in the Kremlin gush over the new democratic experiment.
Then, in 1995, polls came out showing communist Gennady Zyguanov leading in the upcoming presidential race against Boris Yeltsin. In an instant, all of those onetime democratic evangelists began saying Russia was “not ready” for democracy.
Now it’s not just carpetbagging visitors to the Third World pushing this line of thought. Just as frequently, the argument is aimed at “low-information” voters at home.
Maybe the slide started with 9/11, after which huge pluralities of people were suddenly OK with summary executions, torture, warrantless surveillance and the blithe disposal of concepts like habeas corpus.
A decade and a half later, we’re gripped by a broader mania for banning and censoring things that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
It seems equally to have taken over campus speech controversies (expanding the “fighting words” exception to the First Amendment is suddenly a popular idea) and the immigration debate (where Trump swept to the nomination riding a bluntly unconstitutional call for a religious test for immigrants).
Democracy appears to have become so denuded and corrupted in America that a generation of people has grown up without any faith in its principles.
What’s particularly concerning about the reaction both to Brexit and to the rise of Trump is the way these episodes are framed as requiring exceptions to the usual democratic rule. They’re called threats so monstrous that we must abrogate the democratic process to combat them.
Forget Plato, Athens, Sparta and Rome. More recent history tells us that the descent into despotism always starts in this exact same way. There is always an emergency that requires a temporary suspension of democracy.
After 9/11 we had the “ticking time bomb” metaphor to justify torture. NYU professor and self-described “prolific thought leader” Ian Bremmer just called Brexit the “most significant political risk the world has experienced since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” likening it to a literal end-of-humanity scenario. Sullivan justified his call for undemocratic electoral maneuvers on the grounds that the election of Trump would be an “extinction-level event.”
I don’t buy it. My admittedly primitive understanding of democracy is that we’re supposed to move toward it, not away from it, in a moment of crisis.
It doesn’t mean much to be against torture until the moment when you’re most tempted to resort to it, or to have faith in voting until the result of a particular vote really bothers you. If you think there’s ever such a thing as “too much democracy,” you probably never believed in it in the first place. And even low-Information voters can sense it.